Moral science classes are coming back to West Bengal, suitably secularized. Government schools in the state are starting value education from the primary level. This will be to implement recommendations made by the National Council for Educational Research and Training, and a draft of the new syllabus is almost complete. But West Bengal has made this recommendation uniquely its own thing. The contents are significant. The children are going to be taught about the evils of sectarianism and war to prepare them for harmonious social coexistence. The exempla are going to be, among other things, the Iraq war and the Gujarat pogrom. But none of this is going to be made to sound like political propaganda or sloganeering. Instead, little stories are going to be told, through which the right values will be inculcated. A social conscience will also be nurtured. When talking about tea, for instance, students will be made aware of the labour that goes into the growing and picking of tea. Or when learning about the chhou dancers, their social context will form part of what will be discussed. Moreover, certain important commemorative “days” are going to be part of the school calendar — apart from Independence Day and Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday, there will be days allocated for reflecting on the importance of the environment, health and for commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima.
All these sentiments are indeed laudable, and it is never too early to learn about the various forms of peaceful human coexistence. But most government schools are struggling to maintain the minimal standards in providing the most basic elements of primary education. Encumbering them with yet another subject to be taught does not quite make sense. Teachers who cannot manage to or feel disgruntled about teaching children how to read, write and count, ensure attendance and maintain discipline may not feel up to teaching them the social anthropology of chhou. Besides, it would be rather difficult to keep this new syllabus untinted after it is filtered out of the Left Front government’s authorizing machinery. Perfectly acceptable, and indeed necessary, forms of social and political awareness then get taken up into party ideology, and education then becomes inextricable from partisanship. Value education in India — issuing from the NCERT and approved by the state government — is tainted at its source by the hands of the state. The state should stay as far as possible from determining the bias and contents of moral education in its schools, and concern itself with the basic aspects of maintaining academic excellence.